On 28 August 2015, a little over five years since he watched from the bench as Holland lost the World Cup final to Spain, Ryan Babel got himself caught up in a Twitter storm. Babel aimed a dig at Rafael Benítez, the man who brought him to Liverpool, and then he ended up sparking a sexism furore after an ill-advised response to a female fan who had disagreed with the initial post from a stagnant 28-year-old footballer who had seen better days.
It was a classic example of there being such a thing as bad publicity because not only did Babel look like an idiot, the controversy was also a brief reminder of his squandered talent. The story started and ended there, quickly dying down once it became clear that no one cared that much about a social media meltdown from someone who had just left a lowly Turkish team for UAE club Al Ain. Babel’s wider relevance had faded long ago. At a time when he should have been hitting his peak, playing in the Middle East hammered home his heavy fall from grace.
Two years on from that sorry episode, a player who was once tipped by his former national coach, Marco van Basten, to become the next Thierry Henry is back in the headlines for the right reasons. Babel has been called up by Holland for the first time since November 2011, after enjoying quite the turnaround in 2017. Though moving to Deportivo La Coruña did not work out after he ended his unhappy spell at Al Ain, he has rediscovered his spark since joining Besiktas in January. His excellent form for the Turkish champions convinced Dick Advocaat to name him in his squad for Holland’s final two World Cup qualifiers, when they will make one last attempt to avoid the ignominy of failing to make it to Russia.
It is a praiseworthy achievement from Babel even if the forward owes his spot to the absence of the injured Quincy Promes. There have been signs of a more mature, focused outlook in recent months. He has scored five times in nine games this season, with goals in the wins against Porto and RB Leipzig taking Besiktas to the top of their Champions League group and showing that he is still capable of flourishing at the highest level.
About time, you might say. Babel turns 31 in December and that is why there is also a bittersweet tinge to Babel’s return from international exile, not just for the player but also for Dutch football as a whole.
Perhaps it is unfair to home in on that unfortunate tweet again, but it represents a distinct career low for Babel, after years of stasis from a player who was meant to be one of the stars of his generation. Babel was the man of the match when Holland beat Serbia 4-1 to win the European Under-21 Championship in 2007. He was a product of Ajax’s youth system and it was hailed as a major coup when Liverpool bought him for £11.5m later that summer.
Yet despite a promising first season in England, it never quite happened for Babel. He tailed off at Anfield and eventually joined Hoffenheim in January 2011. Time was still on his side, but football doesn’t wait. Hoffenheim let him go back to Ajax, who moved him on to Kasimpasa in Turkey after a year.
You have to go back to 11 November 2011 for Babel’s last Holland appearance, in a 0-0 friendly draw with Switzerland. He returns to find a great footballing nation struggling to come to terms with its diminished standing. World Cup finalists in 2010 and semi-finalists in 2014, Holland’s crisis has not eased since their failure to reach Euro 2016.
These are tough times. Advocaat’s side are third in their qualifying group with two matches left, three points behind Sweden and four behind France. Their fate could be sealed if they do not win in Belarus on Saturday night, with Sweden hosting Luxembourg before coming to Amsterdam on Tuesday. Even if Holland were able to squeak into the World Cup via the play-offs, they would not be among the favourites.
Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder have all moved into their 30s without being adequately replaced. Sneijder has been left out of the squad after struggling at Nice, but it does not reflect well on the players who have emerged over the last decade that the 33-year-old is still in the frame despite his decline since 2010.
Babel has often been accused of lacking desire, a facile conclusion to reach about a young black man who likes to rap in his spare time. It seems an inaccurate reading of someone who survived growing up in the Bijlmermeer, a tough part of Amsterdam, to become a talented professional footballer. Yet he is also an emblem of Holland’s decline.
Babel made his international debut in a World Cup qualifier away to Romania in 2005, scoring the clincher in a 2-0 win after replacing the injured Robben in the 22nd minute. He looked like the future, but his four subsequent goals have come in friendlies.
Perhaps Babel’s recall is the start of a fairytale – scoring winners against Belarus and Sweden and earning redemption as he drags the wounded Dutch to the World Cup – but for now it feels like a reminder of his wasted potential and Holland’s lost generation.